This is a condensed version of an article published by UNHCR Innovation. You can read the full piece here.
Don’t start with a boat. Don’t show it lurching on the waves, a crush of terrified people packed elbow to ribcage, a baby crying. Don’t focus on their past: the homes they left, the loved ones lost, the bribes paid, the calculations made and agonized over.
Instead, let Shahm Maskoun, a 28-year-old refugee from Syria tell his story. He doesn’t just enjoy talking about his journey. He feels absolutely compelled to. To offer the world a new refugee narrative. To show what is possible.
“The real crisis right now is that the media and politicians are focusing only on negative examples,” Maskoun says. “Refugees are not the crisis. This is the crisis.”
Maskoun was a privileged but average young man in Syria before the war broke out. His father owned an international jewellery business in Aleppo and his mother was a professor of Arabic.
“I had everything that I needed,” Maskoun says in fluent English. “I had my education, I did my engineering in one of the best universities, I had my car, my friends, the little house I thought I’d get married in one day.”
Then, suddenly, he didn’t.
Gone was the family business. The house. Too many friends and loved ones to think about. And Maskoun’s confidence that he could live in freedom if he lived at all, since he faced the choice of being conscripted for one warring side or another. He had already faced torture, something he only speaks of as “a black chapter in my life.”
It was a clear choice: kill or be killed. Maskoun could not stomach either option.
The Maskouns fled Syria and made their way across borders and nations, mercifully safe and eventually together in Marne-la-Vallee, a town on the outskirts of Paris.
Maskoun did not speak French and had no friends in town. Depression plagued him along with his sad memories of friends lost, and a life interrupted so completely.
He was also up against pernicious stereotypes faced by many refugees. The belief that refugees come to other countries to take people’s jobs, and collect welfare checks. That they are lazy. That they are extremists.
But Maskoun’s drive to develop himself kept him resolutely moving forward, and away from outside assistance.
He enrolled in a master’s program and fine-tuned the French he’d picked up on the street. When he had trouble understanding the lectures, he recorded them, and played them back at night.
Soon, Maskoun started to give. He made friends and invited them to his home to eat Syrian food and learn about the culture and history of his country. When he was recruited for an internship and later an enviable job as a project engineer for an international banking system, he always looked for ways to extend opportunities to former classmates he knew deserved them.
Two master’s degrees and a French identity card later, Maskoun lends his experiences and talents to a program called Wintegreat that helps young, ambitious refugees who are newly arrived and need help to continue their educations.
The program works in some of the best business schools and universities of France to integrate young refugees who want to continue their studies but need a boost to do so. During a four-month course they learn French, study French history and culture, and receive weekly mentorship to help craft polished resumes and cover letters.
“The main thing we try to work on is to empower those refugees, and make them believe in themselves and that they can do it again,” says Maskoun.
He also wants to show Europeans that they should be viewed as people, not a crisis. With a little effort on everyone’s part, they can be a value added to society.
He wants to combat those assumptions about refugees that he’s heard expressed even by his own school friends or co-workers.
“I try to broadcast what I can do as a person and to give a positive example to show people we are something, we are just like you,” Maskoun says. “We lost everything, what we need is just a little opportunity to prove that we can add value.”
How many Shahm Maskouns are there in the world? He argues he’s not exceptional, scrolling through his Facebook feed to show off similarly successful refugee friends. Those in the U.S. who’ve become doctors, the ones with satisfying jobs in Germany and Spain, the acquaintance who landed a position with the government of Turkey, the others who’ve started their own businesses.
His is the new refugee story. Today around 65 million people seek protection in countries not their own. And whenever possible, they are making the best of it, trying to market their skills and learn new ones, find work and opportunity and make connections.
To Maskoun, and the sad, cliché refugee story he often sees in the media strips refugees of their previous successes, and their ambitions for the future. They make him feel guilty. Guilty that he couldn’t show the world what he has overcome and accomplished, the achievements he believes other refugees will surpass.
End with a success. Not a complete one, maybe. One that is still growing, and picking up speed. A success that demanded sacrifice, openness and acceptance. A success that gives others hope, and many pride.